Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Do not rejoice in this. . .
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. Jesus said, “Do not rejoice that the spirits are subject to you but that your names are written in the Book of Life...”
There is a moment that comes to every pastor when you realize that the ministry is not what you thought it was. It is an awful moment when the dreams of the naive are replaced by the disappointments of the wise. In the heady days of seminary you thought it was all great theological discussion and you headed off with enthusiasm as warriors heading confidently to battle. On call day a full chapel was there to send you off to some secret domain you cannot wait to find out (made easier today by smart phones). Then you endured a painful waiting game as neither pastors nor students until finally the magical day of your ordination came. There the mighty men of God come round you and voices are raised, hands are laid, prayers are prayed, and suddenly you are a finished product. You are a pastor. And you have a parish. Or, if you are lucky, two! Wow.
You have been told that the people are waiting for just kind of man you are – young, smart, a dragon slayer for the name of Jesus. At some point in time you might realize that just maybe the church or churches to which you have been called to are the very dragons God has called you to slay. That is when the shock and disappointment finally grabs you. You feel alone and you are alone. You have no real weapons or resources as the world defines them – only the Word. And the enemies of that Word are working their darnedest to cloud the ears and shut off the hearts not only of hearers but of you, the speaker of that Word. All the while, the people in the pews are pressing you to make the church grow and the officials in the district office are asking what you have to show for all your work so far.
Then you read a text like we heard in the Gospel and sadness comes. You realize the world is not your oyster and there is no pearl waiting for you. You are sent out as common laborers and not masters, into a wolf shaped world as vulnerable lambs, without even a small backpack or a hidden stash of cash to fall back on. You have only the Word with which to face a world of sick and wounded people, a world of hard and proud people, a world of dead and dying people. And you begin to wonder if there is enough dust on earth to shake off your feet for all those who refuse the sackcloth and ashes of repentance.
But the most amazing thing happens in the Gospel. The seventy two return with joy. Satan fell. Demons shuddered. And Jesus rejoiced with them and promised that nothing shall hurt them. Every pastor yearns for such a moment of glory and the same results. Look around you, however, because it seems the glory days have vanished and now the church struggles not to conquer but to survive. What you want, Coleman, and what I want and what every pastor wants is the same. We want glory. We want to conquer in the name of Christ. We want to swell the pews with people, the classrooms with children, and transform the world. We want to do this for Christ, of course, but also for us and our egos. Our Lord insists that our joy is not to come from victories or results or statistics but that our names are written in the Book of Life. Our joy is not that the spirits are subject to us but we are subject to the Word of God, to the grace of Christ, unmerited, unearned and unlimited.
Dear friends in Christ, we face powerful enemies and we struggle with great problems and it too often seems we have no real power and no real weapons to fight the good fight. But that is not true. Our names are written in the Book of Life. Christ came for us. This is our first and foremost joy – not in some great and imagined victory or changing the world forever but the cross where love died for you and for me. And this is our power. While we imagine a life in the Kingdom lived aloof from challenges and problems and trials, it is precisely in this life of challenge and problem and trial we live – without fear and with great joy. Why? Because we already know the outcome. We may not know the next chapter or paragraph or word but we know the ending – we belong to the Lord now and forevermore. Our names are written in the Book of Life.
When years pass and a pastor realizes that his work is repetitive, ongoing, and routine: speaking the Word of Christ in the name of Christ, calling a people to faith who have none, calling the baptized people of God back to faith and repentance – all done amid a world that does not seem to feel the pinch of guilt, the shame of repentance, or even long for the joy of forgiveness. When years pass and a pastor finally realizes that God will not judge his ministry on the basis of results but of faithfulness to this Gospel, then a measure of peace is found, even contentment. The Word of the Lord endures forever and it is this Word of which I am servant and you are, Coleman. We are servants of this Word alone.
When years pass and the people of God realize that their lives are a constant battle against the lure of the world, against hearts still harboring dreams of personal accomplishment to commend them before God... When the people of God awaken to the fact that the call to repentance is not God’s judgment but His gift. When the people of God realize that faithfulness is the only victory that counts, then you begin to know a measure of peace and even contentment. You belong to the Lord not because you feel it or even want it but because He has laid claim upon you in your baptism, brought you forth to new and everlasting life, that your names were written in the Book of Life in the ink of His blood that endures forever. Because this Word endures forever, You are forever. If God be for us, who can be against us? Will He who gave us His Christ now withhold anything from us? Can anything separate us from the power of His love in Christ? This is our joy. And this is the joy of our calling that we impart to the world.
The Church does not promise an easier life or a life without heavy burden. She does not promise earthly success or victory. She does not promise health or wealth. She does not promise a quick fix or even a slow improvement to the circumstances of this mortal life. She promises only what Christ promises. He will meet repentance with the grace of forgiveness. He will not abandon us in our struggle but will contend with us and for us against the enemies and powers of this age. He will sustain the weary with His Word and feed the hungry with His flesh and quench the thirsty with His blood. He will deliver us from death and through death to everlasting life. And no one can steal us from Him.
The Kingdom of God has come near to you. That is our claim to fame. Preachers in the pulpit and hearers in the pews – it is the same. The Kingdom of God is ours. We do not belong to the troubles of this life nor to the enemies of the Lord or His people. We belong to Him who died for us and who lives in us. He has recorded the deed to possess us with the riches of His life and we belong to Him. We are not our own to live as we please or do what is right in our eyes. We have His Law written into our hearts and His Spirit to lead us to delight in that Law. We have as our goal and purpose holiness and righteousness. We live to the praise of His glory not as some burden imposed upon us but as the joy of our calling and as the mark of our identity as the people of God. We speak of His kingdom and in His name bear His Word to the world.
He who hears you, hears me. That is God’s promise. And that is enough for a pastor just beginning his life of service and for an old one nearer to its end than to its beginning. That is enough for the congregations who will receive you. That is enough for plans and programs, ministries and services. We have the Word of the Lord and through that Word the Lord will work in us to call a world to repentance, to speak forgiveness to penitent, to give them new birth in the water of baptism, to guide their path as a lamp to their feet, and to nourish us on the way with the body and blood of Christ, and to bring us to the end of this earthly journey in the heavenly courts. That is enough. That is our joy. We are His and He is ours.
The one who rejects you, rejects me. That is our consolation. We are not to take it personally. The world rejects us not because we have failed but because we are Christ’s and the world has beheld His glory and rejected that glory. So what happens to those who hear and do not believe is not our concern. We have a Word to speak, a joy to share, a hope to reveal, a future to make known. Do not rejoice in earthly victories nor be overcome by earthly defeats, rejoice that your names are written in the Book of Life.
Coleman, you are a prisoner for the Lord, called by God through His Church for His own service. Walk worthy of this calling, with humility and gentleness, with patience and love. The Lord has given you all the tools you will need in His Word, to equip the saints, to do the work of ministry, to build up the Body of Christ, and to sustain the people of God in the storms of change and chance, deception and darkness. The Lord has sent you to the good people of St. Paul and St. Thomas congregations as a gift and, if they will receive you as a shepherd and gift and you will receive them as your flock and responsibility, you both need not fear anything.
The aim of the charge given you is love and the Gospel you proclaim will nurture you even as it nurtures those who hear it. So be faithful and be patient and rejoice that YOUR name is written in the Book of Life and do not forget this fact. Then your ministry will not only bear fruit according to God’s purpose but you will find contentment in this calling – you and Rachel and Ana and those to come. Grace, mercy, and peace to you, Coleman, and to the ministry conferred upon you this day through the prayers and laying on of hands. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.